Chile's farmers spur brisk trade in produce

There is a look of deep satisfaction on Jorge Ovalle's weather-lined face. His harvest of asparagus finished and the money he received from this year's crop in the bank, he can relax a bit, enjoying the remaining warm weeks of Chile's late summer while getting his land ready for next season's planting.

In the five years since he put some 10 hectares (25 acres), nearly half his land, into asparagus, his income has doubled.

``It was a wise move,'' he said, squinting as he surveyed his 20-hectare fundo, as farm properties in Chile are called. ``I suppose I should have done it sooner. But I thought the market in Chile was overstocked with asparagus.''

It was. But that was before Chile discovered there was an export market for asparagus. Chile's asparagus plants, as well as its other vegetables and fruits, ripen during what, in the Northern Hemisphere, are the cold winter months. As a result, many Latin American and Caribbean countries are finding a large and growing market for their produce in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe.

In five years, for example, Chile's export of asparagus has grown from less than 100 tons to more than 1,000 tons in the current season. This latest tally is a 33 percent increase over the 1983-84 export total. Most of the exports, and virtually all this season's increase, have gone to the US.

According to figures released by the Asociaci'on de Exportadores de Chile, the US took 82 percent of Chile's asparagus exports, with smaller amounts going to Canada and Western Europe. The Scandinavian countries are the main European recipients of the crop, most going as perishable cargo aboard commercial airliners. Overall, the US was Chile's main agricultural trading partner, accounting for 46 percent of the exports.

``I expect that there will be a sizable increase in both production and exports during the upcoming year,'' says Hern'an Monardes, a spokesman for Fundaci'on Chile, a quasi-government agency that coordinates exports. ``It is just like apples and grapes and other fruits in the past decade. There probably is a limit to the quantity of our fruits and vegetables that the world market can absorb, but so far we haven't found it.''

These exports are one of the few positive developments in Chile's hard-pressed economy. They are also the most positive element in the agricultural part of the economy.

Faced with high interest payments on the nation's foreign debt, running at $18 billion, along with a nationwide industrial depression, the government of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet Ugarte is touting widely the sudden surge in exports of vegetables and fruits. Total agricultural exports were $437 million last year, up 29 percent from the previous year, with fresh and processed fruits and vegetables accounting for 77 percent of the total.

Commodity support policies and good weather are the main reasons for the upsurge of vegetable and fruit production and exports, and also for increased profits in farming and for farmer confidence in the future.

Here in this rolling farm country 140 kilometers (about 85 miles) south of Santiago, the capital, the Pinochet government is not very popular. But it is getting credit for the surge in farm exports. Jorge Ovalle says that ``this export of vegetables makes farming profitable, and the government in Santiago deserves credit for finding the markets.''

As he looks out over his land, which borders on the swiftly flowing Tinguiririca River, there is a warm smile on his face: ``My son is now thinking of remaining on the farm. He wanted to go to leave the farm and go to Rancagua to find work. Now he may stay.''

This improvement in many of Chile's farm communities during the past dozen years, as fruit and vegetable exports increased in volume, is apparent especially in the central valleys -- from Illapel, 200 kilometers north of Santiago, to Talca, 250 kilometers south. It is an area with a climate much like that of California.

``Chile is the southern equivalent of the Central Valley of California,'' says Rodrigo Astudillo Larrondo, an agronomist with the Ministry of Agriculture. ``Smog is the same, and irrigation facilities are much the same. But we have the basic difference in reverse seasons.''

Not all of Chile's agriculture is benefiting from the export bounty. Take wheat, for example. Concentrated in Chile's southland, wheat farms are not producing enough wheat for the domestic market, and prices are a bit low for farmers to make a good profit on wheat. At the same time, wheat imports, which account for about half the national wheat consumption, are expensive.

Over the long run, if domestic wheat prices were to increase, farmers might be inclined to sow more hectarage in wheat. Chile could probably become self-sufficient in wheat. For the moment, however, wheat imports on the scale of nearly a million tons a year eat up much of the profits from fruit and vegetable exports.

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